The incredible shrinking operating system

Windows, Mac OS, and Linux are all getting smaller. What does that mean for you?

From the software concept called JeOS (pronounced "juice"), the Just Enough OS, to hardware concepts like Celio RedFly, an 8-inch screen and keyboard device running applications off a smartphone via a USB or a Bluetooth connection, there are an increasing number of indications that the center of gravity is shifting away from the traditional massive operating systems of the past.

Even the major OS vendors themselves are saying that the next versions of their OS -- Windows 7, Linux in its many distributions, and Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard -- are getting a smaller footprint.

There are many reasons for the traditional OS to shrink and for new OSes to start small, but two stand out:

One, a smaller code base is easier to manage and secure than a large one. For example, estimates for Vista's development costs run around $6 billion, and BusinessWeek has estimated that 10,000 employees spent about five years developing it.

Two, a smaller OS can run on a greater variety of devices, and as netbooks, smartphones, and new devices such as the iPod Touch gain traction, the benefit of a smaller OS becomes hard to ignore. Today, Microsoft's Windows Mobile is a separate code base from the desktop Windows, while Apple's iPhone OS is a both a subset of and extension of the Mac OS. In both cases, that adds a lot of work for their companies and for application developers. And it means that customers must support an unwieldy number of operating systems.

What Microsoft, Apple, and the Linux community are up to

"Ideally, we want to see Windows 7 run across a spectrum of hardware: small, standard, or desktop," says James DeBragga, general manager of Windows Consumer Marketing at Microsoft. Apple hasn't said why it wants Mac OS X to use fewer resources, but a common theory is that it wants future iPhones and perhaps netbook or tablet devices to run the same OS as its beefier Macs do.

DeBragga said that Microsoft designed Windows 7 to reduce the overall memory footprint compared with Windows Vista. It did so by reducing the overall number of services running at boot, improving Desktop Windows Manager memory consumption and reducing the memory requirements for features throughout Windows 7. "Users have no patience for a long boot-up or shut-down time," says Dan Kusnetzky, an independent research analyst.

Linux distribution vendors are also slimming down their versions of Linux. Ubuntu, for example, has stripped out MySQL, CUPS (Common Unix Printing Service), e-mail, and LDAP functionality to bring the size of its OS down from about 700MB to 200MB.

And Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu have all delivered stripped-down versions of their Linux distros for use in virtual appliances, several of which often run on one physical computer, so footprint becomes a key issue for them. Red Hat's AOS (Application Operating System), for example, lets you run Linux Enterprise Edition apps unmodified in a portable virtual machine. And JeOS -- which Ubuntu, Novell, and others offer -- builds a stack that is "just enough" to support that application by analyzing what APIs and library components need to be called for what functions.

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Ephraim Schwartz

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